Dog Days at Pipe

Sean Doherty talks Medina, Fanning, Slater, and the 2014 Pipe Masters

Mick Fanning attempting to tame muddled Backdoor monsters at dawn as the Pipe Masters nears. Photo: Glaser
Mick Fanning attempting to tame muddled Backdoor monsters at dawn as the Pipe Masters nears. Photo: Glaser

You'd find it hard to believe that in a few days time the 2014 World Title will be decided here at The Pipeline. She isn't exactly at her best right now.

While there has been plenty of swell this week, it's failed to dislodge the warehouse-sized sandbar that's currently sitting on the Pipe side of the reef. I've been here five days and seen only a few true Pipe waves, while on the other side of the reef Backdoor and Off The Wall have been patchy at best. The Pipe guys have hardly even bothered with it–no John John, no Jamie–and only a handful of Tour guys have been sighted. It's been quiet.

Even Kelly hasn’t sampled much of Pipe’s offerings. When he broke two toes back in Fiji a month or so ago you almost sensed it could work to his advantage. He's surfed two events before with broken bones in his feet before and he's won both, but you also knew he'd milk the injury for every psychological drop. You pictured him walking down the beach in a moon boot, ripping it off at the waters edge, paddling out and getting cosmically tubed, winning Pipe, winning the world title… then putting the moon boot back on for the presentation.

"I'm pretty excited," he said when I spoke with him three weeks ago. "This broken foot thing has thrown me for a loop, but I'm confident I'll be fine. I've got to get comfortable in the lineup, so my back is to the wall in that regard… but that kind of thing can also allow you to focus more."

Kelly is the longest of long shots, needing basically to win and needing both Gabriel and Mick to fall somewhere along the way, but you sense he'd rather it that way, tapping into the macabre sense of theater Pipe provides. "Err, no, I'd prefer to win it in France actually," he laughs, "but yes, when all's said and done and the dust has settled, it'd be sweet to win it at Pipeline. That's the dream scenario. I just gotta pull a fucking rabbit out of the hat."

For the third year running, Kelly literally finds himself in the same position heading into Pipe. In both 2012 and 2013 he was one heat and a buck short of the world title, but while his surfing at Pipe remains incandescent and largely untouchable, the last two Pipe world title showdowns at Pipe haven't ended well for him.

"They both hurt in their own ways. With Joel two years ago, looking back at the year, asking myself if I could have surfed in Brazil with a cut on my foot, and to get as close as I did, one heat short, I felt OK with that. But last year I looked back at all the heats I lost, and I was one wave short in all of them, and any one of those waves would have won me the title. That one bugged me a little bit, cause I thought Yadin had the best barrel in that heat [Mick Fanning's winning quarterfinal] but he didn't get the best score. I've looked at that heat, Mick got the wave, it was super clutch… what are the judges going to do? All they had to do was compare Mick's and Yadin's waves and ask who got the better barrel? For me that was Yadin's. So yes, that one fucking bugged me!"

You probably know by now that Mick and Gabe are sharing a house here on the North Shore, but you didn't see them takeoff and split the peak at Pipe the other day. Mick right, Gabe left, neither completely commanding in the wobbly slabs. They paddled out five minutes apart, and in perfect symmetry Mick got caught inside on the right, Gabe on the left, both wearing eight footers on the head. It mightn't be pretty, but they're tenderizing themselves in the meat grinder. Mick acknowledged that paddling out into 15-foot Third Reef sets the afternoon before winning the world title last year was crucial to him winning, the floggings almost more important than the tubes in acclimating to the rhythm of the place.

Mick seems blissfully beyond world titles right now, way less tied up in it than either Kelly or Gabe.

And anyway, Mick's got bigger issues. He's currently engaged in a furious mobile write-off session with a bunch of his mates that erupted when an image of Mick on the cover of an Australian surf mag was posted on a private feed. The black and white cover features Mick posed, Horse and Hound style, cuddling his dog, Harper… only problem being the angle it's shot on makes him appear to be doing so naked. And haven't the boys had some fun with it. "Since when does rooting ya dog get ya the cover?" asks Jay “Bottle” Thompson. Yadin, Parko, Dingo, the Harringtons, Paul Fisher… even Kelly chipped in with a comment. Mick has been busy sending retribution back to everyone who's commented, which has taken up most of the hours in the day and ensured he's not getting too caught up in the whole world title thing. He may have even forgotten it's happening.

The house next door to where we're staying at Off The Wall is full of Brazilian media, and they're not here by accident. They're here to see their boy Gabby win. The house overlooks Pipe and they're launching drones from the veranda to make sure every angle of their boy's inevitable world title win is covered. Gabe has been spectacularly underground, hardly sighted, but then on an empty beach this morning he stood for 10 minutes at the waters edge as he got his photo taken. He's juggled invisibility and presence. For a kid not yet 21, this is a huge week. He wins a few heats and he's a national hero, up there with his friend Neymar, the golden boy of Brazilian soccer. But to get there he's got to navigate a Hawaiian wildcard, the two gnarliest old dogs in the yard in Mick and Kelly, and what looks like a tempestuous forecast.

But Gabe looks assured. Drinking beers on the beach the other day, we watched a solo figure surfing the sandbar on the other side of Off The Wall. He took off on a stepping left and launched into a giant alley oop, eight foot clear of the lip, and landed it. And then on the same wave he did it again, just higher. He beached the wave and two kids ran down immediately to get his autograph. Parko, who'd watched Gabe's wave with large chunks of his back missing after being pressed into the reef, yelled, "I'm heading down for an autograph after that!"

It's unlikely however that Gabe Medina will be alley-ooping to the 2014 World Title, unless he's got it mastered at 12-foot Pipe. He's gonna have to win it the old-fashioned way.